NCFY Reports

Youth Workers’ Patience, Open Minds Get Youth to Talk About Family Violence

Every once in a while, crisis counselor and therapist Adam Kleinmeulman sees the signs of abuse literally written out on a runaway youth’s body. The message might appear in block letters drawn with permanent marker on the youth’s skin, clothes, or backpack: “I’m homeless. My dad beats me.”

Image of a young man looking at the camera.But more often, Kleinmeulman, a crisis counselor and therapist at Child, Inc., a Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) grantee in Wilmington, Delaware, has to get young people to trust him before they’ll tell him if they’ve been abused at home. “They come in one day and they don’t say anything,” he says about how cautious youth are in the beginning of a relationship that can take months to build. “And the next time they’ll trust you enough to say [what’s going on with them].”

Learning how to ferret out whether youth have experienced abuse at the hands of a family member or a guardian is important for runaway and homeless youth workers. Family violence may contribute to as many as one-third or one-half of runaway episodes, says David Finkelhor, professor of sociology and director of several research centers at the University of New Hampshire. And an abusive household may hamper youths’ ability to reunite with their families, a major goal of FYSB’s Basic Center Program.

Many runaway and homeless youth providers, like Kleinmeulman, find young people are reluctant to reveal the fact that they have experienced or witnessed abuse at home, especially when they aren’t familiar with the youth worker asking them questions.

Youth may fear getting themselves—or their abusers—in trouble. “Kids are very hesitant to report the entire truth, whether they are identifying with the abuser or protecting the parent,” says Heather McCure, a program coordinator at CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services, a FYSB grantee in rural Clifton Park, New York. 

Their silence may also result from ignorance about what constitutes abuse, says Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Switchboard, a nationwide crisis hotline based in Chicago and funded, in part, by FYSB. “If you grow up in a household where hitting and spanking is the norm, maybe you don’t recognize it as physical abuse,” she explains.

Another reason youth keep abuse to themselves may be that they want to save face. “Adolescents sometimes believe they should be stoic and are particularly reluctant to appear powerless or vulnerable,” says Stan Chappell, FYSB’s director of regional operations.

“Youth may be reluctant to report abuse if they don’t know what the response to the report will be or if they have experienced negative or ineffective responses by the legal or child welfare systems,” says Marylouise Kelley, a program specialist in FYSB’s Family Violence Prevention and Services Program.

Photograph of a young woman.The keys to getting youth to open up are being patient, building rapport, and not judging the young person, says Donna Leffew, clinical director at the Life Crisis Center, an anti–domestic violence agency in Salisbury, Maryland.

Kleinmeulman prompts young people with open-ended questions and fill-in-the-blank statements. “I never specifically ask, ‘Do your parents beat you?’” he says, explaining, “It’s just a little bit callous.” Instead, if youth say they’re dissatisfied about something, he might ask some questions in that direction.

Because it takes time for youth to become comfortable enough to reveal their secrets, youth workers need to keep asking the same questions over again, if they think abuse might have occurred, Kleinmeulman says. “You have to be patient and be willing to retread steps you’ve already gone through before.”

Leffew recommends avoiding “why” questions. “As soon as you say ‘Why?’ they shut down,” she says.

She also says youth workers should not talk negatively about the suspected offender. “They’re going to have lots of confused feelings,” she says of abused youth. “That person might treat them all right—and every kid wants their parents to love them no matter what.”

Observation is important, too. Watching the young person interact with their parents can signal to Kleinmeulman the need to talk to the young person alone. “If the parent is in the room, the kid shuts down,” he says. “And that’s always a red flag to me to probe that area.”

Some Questions to Ask Youth When You Suspect Abuse

  • Do you feel safe at home?
  • Are you healthy?
  • Do you feel sad?
  • Do you feel dissatisfied?
  • Has anyone ever questioned you or made you feel uncomfortable?
  • Have you ever been hit?
  • Has anyone ever thrown anything at you or deprived you of food and shelter?
  • How would you end the following sentences?
     
    • "People tell me my problems are ______________________________."
       
    • "I think my problems are ______________________________."
       
    • "The hardest problem I have is ____________________."

 

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